Hockey Day Preview: Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk, and the 2007 draft

Back in 2007, there was a debate as to who the Chicago Blackhawks should select with their first overall draft choice. On the one hand, there was a small, skinny undersized American who was piling up points with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. On the other hand, there was the big power forward that looked great with the U.S. National under-18 team. Both were viewed as “can’t miss prospects.” And three years later, both players are proving the scouts right.

Patrick Kane’s meteoric rise to stardom is pretty straight-forward. He played with the United States Developmental Program for a few years until he moved to the OHL a year before his draft year. During his single year in juniors, Kane played alongside fellow blue-chip prospect Sam Gagner and put up astronomical numbers. In 58 games, he had 62 goals and 83 assists for 145 points. When Chicago picked him #1 overall, no one thought twice about their decision. When he entered the league as an 18-year-old and scored 72 points in his freshman campaign, it seemed pre-ordained.

Kane’s first year was only the beginning of his charmed NHL life. Following his Calder Trophy year, his team started to experience the same levels of success that he’d experienced individually. As part of the rebuilding project in the Windy City, the Blackhawks had assembled a stable of young forwards and defensemen that were the envy of the entire league. They were able to make it to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, only to fall to the more experienced (and defending Stanley Cup champion) Detroit Red Wings.

Kane scored a very respectable 14 points in 16 playoff games in 2009. But like his teammates, he learned some valuable lessons about raising the bar when the games meant the most. In 2010, the Blackhawks had matured into an elite team while finishing 2nd in the Western Conference with 112 points. Any thoughts that they’d fall short were quickly erased when they swept through San Jose and beat the Philadelphia Flyers in 6 games. And wouldn’t you know it; it would be Patrick Kane who would score that Cup winning OT goal in Game 6. Pre-ordained.

On the other side of that Cup winning goal was the man who went #2 overall in that 2007 draft. While Kane was celebrating his triumph, James van Riemsdyk was sitting on the Flyers bench at the end of a very different journey to the NHL.

While Kane had jumped on the fast track to the NHL, van Riemsdyk took a much more traditional route to the best league in the world. After the draft, the New Jersey native decided it would be best to head to Hockey East and the University of New Hampshire to continue his development. In his own words:

“In the NHL you must be able to play at both ends of the ice to really become an elite player in the League and that’s one area I really want to work on and keep getting better at so that I’m not considered a letdown in my own end. Once I take care of my own end, I can have some fun on offense.”

At UNH, van Riemsdyk showed the talent that made him the #2 pick. In 2007, he earned MVP honors at the U17 tournament. In 2008, he represented the United States and was the tournament’s leading scorer at the World Junior Championships. By any measure, he was a successful prospect that was showing the development and potential that any team would salivate over. As long as he wasn’t compared to Kane.

“We were both put in different situations and we were in different stages of our hockey development, and I did what I thought was best for me to be a better player.”

Even though Flyers fans and management expected him to start the 2009-10 season with the Philadelphia Phantoms, he was so impressive in training camp that he earned a spot on the opening day roster. Some people will argue that he made the jump too soon, and some people will argue that he needed to learn lessons in the NHL to become the player the Flyers hoped he’d be one day. He would show positive signs like when he won Rookie of the Month in November, but then he went through a few months that so many rookies deal with. 82 games is a long season—especially for a guy who was used to playing 30+ games each season.

This season, van Riemsdyk has almost as many goals as he did last season—in 26 fewer games. A 20 goal, 40 point season certainly isn’t out of the question for the 21-year-old. That’s right. He’s still only 21-years-old. He’s only going to get bigger and stronger—two key qualities for a power forward in the NHL. And considering the two-way game he’s already learned, he looks like he’s blossoming into the player everyone thought he’d be.

It’ll be great to see both players do their thing on Hockey Day in America. It’s no secret that Patrick Kane (and his mouth guard) will be the center of attention when Chicago takes the ice. But with each passing day, van Riemsdyk is proving that he can handle more and more responsibility. Regardless of their paths to the NHL and the differences in their play, they are both bright spots of hockey’s future and will shine for years to come.

The Leafs’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk

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The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business last night, sending the floundering Florida Panthers to a 3-2 defeat at Air Canada Centre.

Now comes the hard part for the young Leafs. They have seven games left to book their first playoff appearance since 2013, and their schedule is no cakewalk.

The Leafs’ next three games are all on the road, in Nashville Thursday, Detroit Saturday, and Buffalo Monday. After that, it’s a four-game home stand to close out the schedule, all against formidable opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.

With a four-point playoff cushion, the Leafs can afford to lose a few games down the stretch. But head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead.

“I really believe with our group if we just focus on the day we’re playing and play right, we have a real good chance to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what we talk about and that’s kind of our mantra every day is just play right, play fast and we have an opportunity to be successful. We don’t get all caught up in the race. We know the standings, it’s in the paper every day, so we know that.”

The Leafs today sent goalie Garret Sparks back to the AHL. That can only mean good news for starter Frederik Andersen, who could play Thursday after missing last night’s victory with an upper-body injury.

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the nod against the Panthers, calling it the biggest game of his career. The 33-year-old then went out and made 25 saves to earn the win.

“It was great,” said McElhinney. “Getting a couple of goals in the first period there helped out a little bit and let me settle into it. It was a nice win.”

Parise ‘pretty black and blue’ after Wilson high stick, but injury not serious

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Zach Parise looked in bad shape after taking a Tom Wilson high stick to the face in Minnesota’s loss to Washington on Tuesday.

Thankfully for the Wild, Parise’s early diagnosis is a good one.

“He can see and is fine as far as that goes,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday, per the club’s Twitter account. “He’s sore in the upper body. I don’t think he’ll be out long.”

Boudreau went on to add that Parise was “pretty black and blue” and unlikely to play tomorrow, when Minnesota hosts Ottawa. That said, the club expects the 32-year-old to return next week.

It goes without saying that losing Parise is huge. The alternate captain has 17 goals and 37 points through 64 games this year, and is averaging 17:33 TOI per night. And for a Wild team that’s mired in a horrific slump — just three wins in its last 15 games — being down the services of such a vital contributor is costly.

Related: Stewart fought Wilson in response to the high stick

Stamkos ‘getting really close’ to return

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It probably won’t happen Thursday against the Red Wings, but Steven Stamkos is getting close to making his return for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think we can start putting him in the day-to-day category right now,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, per team beat writer Bryan Burns. “I don’t see him playing against Detroit. After that, I’d say it’s getting really close.”

Stamkos, who hasn’t played since November due to a knee injury, practiced today with his teammates. He took line rushes and even worked with the second-unit power play.

“Today was probably the best day yet,” the captain said. “Doing better than last time we talked and really feeling better each day now.”

Tampa Bay’s next game after Thursday’s is Saturday against Montreal.

The Lightning are three points back of Boston for the second wild-card spot in the East, but they do hold a game in hand on the Bruins.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game in regulation after they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part, so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty of term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski